1. What NBA Scouts Are Saying
Midseason reports are sprouting up everywhere, with all but five teams having crossed the 41-game threshold entering Friday's play, but we're consulting our own specially convened committee of experts to review the first half. As usual.
You know by now that it's tradition around here, every 20 games or so, to consult with some of the advance scouts who see three to four games every week and get their candid views on what they're seeing from the best seats on press row.
The following survey of five scouts -- three from the West and two from the East -- examines some of the league's leading developments halfway through the 82-game schedule, with panelists granted anonymity so they can speak freely.
Eastern Conference scout on Blake Griffin's biggest first-half feat:
"Blake has energized Baron Davis. He's gotten Baron to want to play again. And when Baron wants to play, he's a really good player. He's engaged now and that's made all the difference [for the Clippers]. They have great finishers and Baron puts them in position to make plays. I wondered how [Eric] Gordon and Baron were going to be able to share the ball, because they both need the ball in their hands, but it seems like they've figured out a way to co-exist. Baron seems to be OK with being more of a set-up guy [than he's been].
"I'll be the first guy to say that I didn't give Kevin Love enough respect. He's a much better all-around player than I thought. But if I can only pick one for the All-Star Game, it's got to be Blake. The game's in L.A. He's the rookie of the year. And he has the best kind of game for an All-Star Game to make TV viewers and fans in the crowd and Mr. Stern happy.
"Vinny Del Negro went from Derrick Rose to Blake Griffin ... not a bad deal."
Western Conference scout on the MVP race:
"Dirk [Nowitzki] showed his valuable-ness by getting hurt and how well they were playing before that. He's definitely in the conversation. I don't think you can give it to anybody from the Spurs, because they're the most valuable team.
"One other guy I'd throw in, just for discussion purposes, is Blake Griffin, because anybody that can get Baron Davis energized the way he has is really valuable to me. I wouldn't really vote for [Griffin for MVP], but he's a guy who's making people say, 'They're still the Clippers, but ...' He's probably the first guy who's ever done that."
"But the most valuable player as we get to the midpoint is Amare Stoudemire. He's rejuvenated the whole city of New York. They've stumbled a little bit here lately, but he's putting up huge numbers and he's got all the cab drivers talking about the Knicks and he's proven he doesn't need Steve Nash to be a great player.
"He's stretched his shooting capability out a few more feet. He's able to hit a deeper shot and he's still an incredible pick-and-roll player. He can take a hit on the drive and finish at the basket. [And] I can't believe how well Raymond Felton has played [next to Stoudemire]. I'm not sure the Knicks believe it, either. We call that making people better. He's just a great player."
Eastern Conference scout on the Spurs' 70-win pace:
"I can't see Pop [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] spending two minutes worrying about 70 wins, but they've never been more fun to watch. They've just got five guys playing basketball. They're the best passing team in basketball. They're shooting lights out. They're so much more high octane than they used to be.
"Everybody shares the ball and Tim [Duncan] just gets his stuff out of flow instead of [the Spurs] just calling '4 Down' and '4 Up' every time down and pounding the ball into him. The Spurs win championships when Manu's healthy and they make 3s and that's what they've been doing all year. I think Boston, in a series, beats everybody in the East. But I really like San Antonio."
Western Conference scout on the state of Kobe halfway through his 14th season:
"When you watch the Lakers, you're in awe of their length [more than Kobe]. I don't think that he's forcing things as much as he used to. I don't know that he's initiating like he used to. When I've seen them, it's almost like he's directing traffic and just waiting until he needs to [take over].
"I don't think he's as tough to stop or cover in the post as he used to be, but he's kind of like [Michael] Jordan now. He knows how to use his off hand to push off and he knows they're probably not going to call it on him as much as they're going to call it on other people."
Eastern Conference scout on Carmelo Anthony winding up with the Knicks:
"I still don't think he plays well in New York City. The smart thing for Melo to do if he wants to be the king and be 'The Man,' like he is in Denver, is to go to New Jersey. Soon you'll be in Brooklyn, you're in a major media market and you'll have the chance to be 'The Man' and have the ball in your hands all the time.
"You obviously need three great players to have the best chance to win it all, but Amare's always going to be the guy in New York because he went there first. I don't think Melo is like Chris Bosh and doesn't want to be the guy.
"He wants to be the guy with the ball in his hands. I don't know if he's a consistent-enough outside shooter to make that team terribly better. He's not a willing passer. The Knicks are a rhythm team offensively and Carmelo's a rhythm-killer. He's a ball-stopper."
Western Conference scout on Derrick Rose's breakout season in Chicago:
"I really like them as a team and I really love watching Rose. One of my favorite players to watch.
"The chemistry on that team looks great. Their defensive tone has changed. They're a team that's going to be dangerous and make a lot of noise just on their effort alone. Effort corrects a lot of problems even when you're missing guys like they've been.
"With Rose, I think the biggest difference is his confidence. No. 2 is just how strong he is. He literally moves guys out of his way. He's hitting those holes and just bulls his way to the rim. And he's not afraid to take a hit. He's definitely got to be in the MVP conversation because he raises his teammates' games to another level."
Eastern Conference scout on Orlando's roster overhaul:
"The thing that I came away with from [my last Magic game] is that Dwight Howard is a really fun-loving guy. People talk about that all the time, but sitting courtside you could really see it. This was a pretty big game and he's literally laughing and joking with people in the floor seats. He wasn't real serious. If I was the coach, I'd be the same way Stan [Van Gundy] is. I'd be mad as heck at him, because I think that rubs off on the team sometimes.
"As for Gilbert [Arenas] ... he hasn't been more of a factor to me than Jason Williams [to date]. I read the article where Stan said it's his fault, but Gil wants a lot of freedom when he's on the court. He's not going to get that kind of freedom playing for Stan. It's not like Stan keeps such a tight rein, because his teams shoot a lot of 3s. But Jameer [Nelson] is the primarily ballhandler, Turk [Hedo Turkoglu] is the second ballhandler and Gil is third.
"I think Gil could make a bigger impact in the playoffs, but he has to learn how to be more aggressive learning the offense and trying to fit in as opposed to what it looks like to me, which is an NBA Finals contender trying to figure out how to fit Gil in. I haven't seen it yet."
Western Conference scout on Kevin Love's crazy numbers:
"I've wondered how he does it myself. The obvious thing is that he's just got a knack for the ball rebounding-wise, but when he plays he's impossible not to watch. Because he's not like Rodman.
"The stuff they run for him [offensively] ... he sets a screen and pops out like a guard and he doesn't need much time to get that 3 off. He's such a threat with the 3-ball and that's not a usual thing for other big guys to cover. And what he's starting to do better is pump fake and drive from the outside.
"It's unusual for a guy that has that [rebounding] knack and works like [Love] does to be so skilled. I don't think Minnesota has enough guys who are winners, guys who are unselfish and play for the team, but I think he's going to be great for years."
Eastern Conference scout on the depths of Cleveland's collapse post-LeBron James:
"Without [Anderson] Varejao and Mo Williams? They're playing with a summer-league team and Antawn Jamison. Byron [Scott] was calling plays [in a recent game] and trying to explain to guys where to go. They didn't know the plays. Antawn was just shaking his head.
"I know it's easy to say this now, but I thought they'd be last or next-to-last in the East when the season started. It was apparent when LeBron was there and you looked at the rest of the talent. When Varejao went down and took the defense with him ... they're just not very much fun to watch.
"My biggest concern would be J.J. Hickson. He doesn't fit into Byron's scheme. If it's true that they could have traded him for Amare Stoudemire, that's one they may regret forever, because I don't think he's a starter on a good team. On a team as bad as that, [Hickson] should be 20 and 10 every night. He should be David West. But he doesn't seem to be a self-disciplined player. He's not in good shape. He's [a] once-every-five-games guy, to me."
2. Happy Anniversary, KB81
Will never forget that Sunday night back in Bristol five years ago.
Will never forget prepping for an "NBA Fastbreak" broadcast, with thoughts of Monday morning's Power Rankings already dribbling around in my head, when Kobe Bryant went nuclear and uncorked 81 points on the helpless, hapless Toronto Raptors at Staples Center.
It was, quite simply, the greatest one-man show in NBA history.
(It also quickly overshadowed everything else in the sports world -- most notably that weekend's two American football games to decide who was going to Super Bowl XL -- which gave me a chuckle.)
This Saturday, amazingly, is the five-year anniversary of Kobe's eruption, which made him the NBA's first player to score as many as 70 points in a game since David Robinson rumbled for 71 at the L.A. Sports Arena on April 24, 1994 ... in front of a wide-eyed rookie on the Clippers' beat from the L.A. Daily News.
Most points in a game in NBA history
|Wilt Chamberlain||78||12/8/61||Lakers (3 OT)|
Top 2 scoring games in NBA history
|Wilt Chamberlain||Kobe Bryant|
|Date||March 2, 1962||Jan. 22, 2006|
|2nd half pts||59||55|
Kobe Bryant by quarter: Jan. 22, 2006 vs. Raptors
Highest percentage of team's points: single game, shot-clock era
3. What Next For Melo, Nuggets?
The Denver Nuggets blamed their counterparts in New Jersey for every media leak, accused the Nets of trying to pressure them into a deal before they were ready, and were generally just as spent as the Russian playboy billionaire sounded at his Nets news conference after five months of Carmelo Anthony trade talks managed to produce only two collapsed trade proposals.
That, though, is not the whole truth.
Don't forget the part about how much the Nuggets are going to miss the Nets if rookie owner Mikhail Prokhorov wasn't bluffing with his repeated insistence Wednesday night that he's ceasing all interest in Anthony.
There's a reason why the Nuggets -- for all their frustrations with the public nature of negotiations and the long-standing doubts about whether Melo could ever be convinced to sign an extension with the team that toils in the Knicks' shadow -- negotiated almost exclusively with New Jersey since autumn.
4. Murphy Still On Move?
But Nets general manager Billy King insists that it's not because Murphy is demanding a trade.
Amid Wednesday's chaos spawned by Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov announcing that the Nets were walking away from five months of Melo negotiations, King had informed New Jersey-based reporters that Murphy -- no longer heading to Detroit as part of the proposed three-team swap -- was granted permission to leave the team after asking to be traded.
On Thursday, though, King told ESPN.com that he described the situation incorrectly.
King says he and Murphy had reached a mutual agreement to try to find the 30-year-old Jersey native a new home -- preferably with a playoff contender -- if the Melo deal fell through and Murphy's $12 million expiring contract was not needed to clinch the Pistons' participation in the trade.
"I probably worded it a little bit too harshly," King said.
He then proceeded to explain that he told Murphy some time ago that he sympathized with the lefty's plight in Jersey, where the rebuilding Nets have made the development of younger players such as Kris Humphries and rookie bruiser Derrick Favors bigger priorities than making sure vets like Murphy get plenty of minutes.
There would be unquestioned interest in Murphy if he went the buyout route and became a free agent -- starting with Orlando, Dallas and San Antonio -- but the Nets are hoping to swap him for a similar expiring contract before the Feb. 24 trade deadline. And Murphy naturally wants to land with a contender to end his run as the guy who has appeared in more games than any other active player (639) without tasting the playoffs.
"I've been very up front with him," King said of recent conversations with Murphy, who has appeared in only 18 games with his hometown team. "I told him it's unfortunate but there's just no minutes here for you, so I'll try to accommodate you [with a trade]."
5. Traffic Cop
Kobe is pointing the Lakers in the right direction, but he's playing a different role. (See Box 1.)
6. Griffin Graphs
More than once early in the season, when John Wall was filling November box scores with a variety of gaudy numbers, we couldn't resist dedicating prime Weekend Dime real estate to compilations of Wall Charts.
Now it's Blake Griffin's turn.
He's actually overdue for this kind of treatment, since there are only four other players (Dwight Howard, Zach Randolph, Carlos Boozer and Kevin Love) in the league averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. And none of them are 21-year-old rookies coming off a full season lost to knee surgery.
Only six other rookies in history, in fact, can say they averaged at or better than Griffin's 22.6 points and 12.8 rebounds per game. ... Five of them are already in the Hall of Fame (Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Walt Bellamy, Elvin Hayes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the sixth (Shaquille O'Neal) is sure to join them.
So to the Griffin Graphs we go ... with the usual life-saving assists from both ESPN Stats & Information and the Elias Sports Bureau:
Most points in a game: 2010-11
|Jan. 17||Blake Griffin||47*||Pacers|
|Nov. 9||Paul Millsap||46||Heat|
|Oct. 27||Monta Ellis||46||Rockets|
|Jan. 5||Kevin Martin||45||Blazers|
|Dec. 29||Dwyane Wade||45||Rockets|
45 points, 10 rebounds: Rookies past 25 years
|Shaq O'Neal||Blake Griffin|
|Date||Feb. 16, 1993||Jan. 17, 2011|
47 Points, 14 Rebounds: Age 21 or younger
Most double-doubles in a row, past 25 years
Exreme meter: Blake Griffin in 2010-11
7. Chatter Box
8. Mountain Mover?
The Nets say their chase is over. Where does Melo, and Denver, turn to now? (See Box 3.)
9. Alternative Listening
Marc Stein joins the "Ben & Skin Show" on ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM) to discuss the Mavs' chances of trying to force their way into the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes and whether they should pursue Washington's Kirk Hinrich.
10. NBA Video Channel